The first pandemic: The 1918 Spanish flu walloped Eagle County
Special to the Daily
Coronavirus is not Eagle County’s first experience with a virulent pandemic.
The Spanish flu slammed into Eagle County in mid-October, 1918, announcing itself with the deaths of six people in a single week in the mining towns of Gilman and Red Cliff. Another 40-plus people in those communities were very sick. The illness had not yet worked its way down the valley. Newspapers suggested that the crest of the flu had passed. That prediction was very wrong.
In reality, the pandemic was just gaining a foothold among the county’s 3,300 residents. No historic record details exactly how many Eagle County people were killed by the flu. However, from the first deaths in October 1918 to the last reported influenza fatality in April 1919, the newspapers documented at least 29 flu fatalities. Hundreds of county residents suffered through the illness and survived.
The Spanish flu behaved in a now-familiar pattern: Newspapers warned of the virus a month before it arrived. After the first big hit in October, the sickness came in waves, surging again in November and December, then stretching well into the next year.
State officials banned public gatherings. Eagle County schools were closed for weeks. District Court operations in the county seat of Red Cliff shut down for six months. Political campaigns were placed on hold.
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Citizens were warned to stay home and advised to wear gauze masks. Some chafed at the state-ordered closures of stores, churches and “places of amusement.” Doctors and nurses worked themselves to exhaustion. In Eagle, decisive community leaders turned a saloon into a hospital. And somehow, the community survived.
The ‘Great Scourge’
“The Epidemic is Serious,” warned the Oct. 25, 1918, Eagle Valley Enterprise newspaper, its front page studded with obituaries of influenza victims. In Red Cliff, the aging and beloved mining camp physician, Dr. Joseph Gilpin, could not keep up with the caseload. A doctor and nurse from Denver were sent in to help. Out-of-work schoolteachers assumed nursing duties.
By Nov. 1, 1918, the flu had reached the downvalley communities, with 25 people sick in Eagle alone. On a Saturday morning, a merchant’s wife, Lura Heyer, 31; and a respected cattle rancher, Charles Johnson, died hours apart, despite the lifesaving efforts of doctors brought in from Red Cliff and Salida. Both left spouses and young children behind.
On that same day, community leaders in Eagle transformed a brick saloon building on Second Street into a Red Cross Hospital, specifically for treating influenza victims. Schoolteacher Gertrude Quinlan, who had some nursing training, was put in charge.
William Nimon, 26, one of the promising young ranchers of the valley and a star on the Eagle baseball team, died at that makeshift hospital after a 10-day illness. His wife was in an adjoining ward, too sick to attend her husband’s funeral. The couple had two young children.
The heartbreaking stories continued. Will Stremme, 27, of Gypsum, survived two ocean crossings to France while serving as a World War I wireless radio operator on a Navy battleship. His calm demeanor on perilous seas and while under attack from German submarines earned praise and promotions. Stremme survived the war but caught the flu while the ship was anchored in New Orleans. His wife and two children buried him in Gypsum.
Influenza killed Mrs. Cornelius Brown, 42, of Eby Creek, a week after she had given birth to a daughter. The baby also died.
The entire Wolcott community was suffering from the flu when rancher Roy Ridgeway, 40, succumbed. There were not enough healthy members of the community to handle the burial. Nine men and a preacher traveled from Eagle to lay Ridgeway to rest in the Edwards cemetery.
Eagle’s local physician, Dr. Frank Montgomery, suffered a complete physical and nervous breakdown caused by overwork. “During that time he went night and day, taking but little rest for days at a time, and answering every call for his services, and his present sickness is due to his successful efforts to stem the tide of that first epidemic,” the Enterprise reported. He recovered, but became sick again after making a night trip, partly on horseback, to tend a flu-stricken family on the Colorado River northwest of Gypsum.
The last reported influenza victim in the county was Swedish immigrant Maria Louisa Juhlin, 56, who died on April 27, 1919.
Worldwide, the Spanish flu pandemic lasted from January 1918 through December 1920. Locally, the virus appeared to have run its course by the summer of 1919. County newspapers ran fewer stories of death and more stories about the local baseball season.
The spouses, parents and children left behind learned to live with their changed circumstances. The final evidence of that terrible time in Eagle County can be found in the local cemeteries, where clusters of tombstones are engraved with 1918-1919 death dates.
Kathy Heicher is the president of the Eagle County Historical Society and the author of several local history books. She can be reached at ECHS@eaglecountyhistoricalsociety.com. Historical photographs provided courtesy of the Eagle County Historical Society and the Eagle Valley Library District.